For the fallen (June 1980)

Jacob Ross

PREE is happy to republish award-winning Grenadian author Jacob Ross’s short story from Akashic BooksSo Many Islands anthology .

Anni pushed a reluctant hand towards her little plastic radio and cut off the outraged voice of Mister Thorne. She would have liked to listen to his whole speech but she had work to do. Her yams were strangling the sweet potatoes, and today she was going to tame them. Out in the garden, though, her head was full of Missa Thorne: his talk of Bloody Thursday ‒ the bomb-blast that was meant to kill him, and the retribution he’d let loose on the Counters who’d placed the device beneath the stage on which he stood.

His words brought back pictures of the three girl-children they’d made posters of, and spread throughout the island, their destroyed bodies splayed on the grass like gutted fish. She felt again the quiet that had fallen on the island, and the loveliness of that afternoon eighteen months ago: a clean blue day; the air over Old Hope sweet and humming because during all that week the mangoes had been throwing out their blossoms.

Missa Thorne was returning to The Park next week, he said. He would rally the thousands around him again; he was going to stand on that very same stage and speak, so that all the Counters on the island knew-and-understood that the Revo was not afraid of them, and if they tried it again the Revo would give them heavy, heavy manners.

Voices broke through her thoughts. On the road below, Slim, the young fast-talking militiaman, stood among a buzz of young people. He was fingering his red beret with one hand, the elbow of the other making jerky movements above the pistol on his hip. They’d already cut away the overhanging trees, fed the leaves and branches to a snapping roadside fire. The girls had tied back their hair with the flag of the Revo ‒ a white square of cloth with a blood-red circle in the middle. Small outbreaks of laughter rose above the slap of machetes and the grate of spades.

She was wondering what the hell them find so funny this time-a-mornin’ when Slim pulled back his shoulders and raised a long brown arm at her. ‘Crazy-Anni, how you this morning?’

Even from this distance she could see the broad spread of the young man’s teeth.

She muttered something nasty and turned towards her rosebush.

It stood on its own mound in the half shade of her cocoa tree, its roots covered with a layer of sea kelp, compost and manure. She’d protected it from the spite of wind and rain and direct sunlight with a ring of coconut fronds.

And to think that once this perfect rosebush almost died – that July morning of heavy dew which had caught her unawares and blighted the leaves with black spot. She’d taken the bus to St George’s to see the man in the Agroshop who knew everything.

‘Cut it back,’ he said. ‘Hard! You’ll be hurting it to save it.’

He’d handed her a tiny bag of Epsom salts. ‘Tonic. Magnesium. And don’t forget a few spoonfuls of gypsum and a sprinkling of sulphur.’

Now here it was, bristling with thorns, its leaves dark and glossed with health; the petals, furled tight like an infant’s fist, straining against the sepals that held them in.

This rosebush was Missa Thorne’s. She would take it to him next week because he’d asked for it.

He’d come to Old Hope the month before the bomb. She was bending over the vermilion tendrils of her pum-pum yams when the thundering of engines straightened her up and pulled her gaze down to the road. The grate of wheels on gravel. Men’s voices.

Something in her quickened when she saw soldiers stepping out of two green jeeps. Between the jeeps, a long black car, so brightly polished it looked silver in the hot light.

A brown man in a blue suit stepped out of it. Another in a white waistcoat stood at his side. Their eyes were on the path that led past her place to the new co-operative farm further up her hill.

She’d straightened her headwrap and turned her face down to her yams again; pulling at weeds that weren’t there while the hum of voices drew nearer.

The thud of footsteps stopped. A voice reached across to her from the narrow feeder road. ‘Greetings, Gran.’

She’d gathered the tail ends of her dress around her knees and straightened up, found herself wiping the soil from her hands onto her clothing.

She looked over at the smiling man and nodded. The whole village had come up the hill behind him.

Slim had pulled away from the crowd. The youngfella’s eyes were wide, his hands agitating at his side. ‘Craz– … erm, Miss Anni, is the Chief self saying hello to you, y’unnerstan? Is Missa Thorne greeting you. Is is …’

‘Uh-huh,’ she said, and raised her eyes at Mister Thorne. ‘That’s you for true?’

A chuckle rumbled out of him. ‘I’m afraid so, Granny.’

She’d imagined a darker fella ‒ grim-faced, with the barrel chest that the bass of his voice suggested on the radio. Missa Thorne was slim and brown. He slipped a cigarette between his lips, pushed his fingers into the pocket of his blue shirt-jac and pulled out a lighter. She watched him bring the flame to the cigarette. The smile was still there, even through the cloud of smoke.

The tall youngfella beside him in the white waistcoat, with the wire in his ear, wouldn’t take his eyes off her. Them eyes of his and the little jerky movements of his head reminded her of birds. The Birdman made her nervous. Missa Thorne took in her patch of corn, her pidgin peas and sweet potatoes. His eyes paused on her bed of roses.

‘Nice,’ he said. ‘Really nice.’

‘They my children,’ she said, angling a sideways glance at his face. ‘They grow happy when I touch them.’

He nodded as if he couldn’t agree more. The five soldiermen were tracing the slope of the hill all the way down to the small ravine below her place. For a moment, she was conscious of her little two-roomed house, leaned up against the calabash tree, and her pit latrine near the bushes at the far end.

She didn’t know what came over her then. She’d hurried over to her roses, brought her knife to her best plant, cleared the thorns and cut the fattest flower. She walked back and held it out to Mister Thorne.

The Birdman chuckled. She caught herself and chuckled too because she’d forgotten the little ravine between them.

Missa Thorne’s face pleated in a wide smile. ‘Roses for the Revo, right? Thank you all the same, Comrade.’

He’d lit another cigarette and said something to the Birdman; then he pointed at the garden. ‘Grow one for me, Granny. Maybe next time?’

She’d nodded, said she would, and watched the crowd move off; kept her eyes on Missa Thorne’s blue shirt until he turned into the co-operative. He’d stopped at the high steel gate, raised a hand above his head and waved. He hadn’t looked back but she knew that wave was meant for her.

Still, she might have forgotten all about that promise, if eight weeks later, there hadn’t been the bomb that almost killed him. Something new had settled on the island. She sensed it straightaway, like the arrival of bad weather ‒ a darkening that a pusson could not put a name to but felt all the same. She saw it in the gun that Slim began wearing on his hip, in the children sneaking off at night with him in those green jeeps, and returning in the small hours of the morning. Their faces were grim, and they talked only of blood and heavy manners.

The young children had changed their ring-game songs, their chants becoming full of little cruelties.

Ole Miss Anni
She went crazy
Cuz she belly
Kill all she baby

What will she say to Missa Thorne?

She wasn’t going to prepare no words becuz the truth need no rehearsin’.

She might say, ‘I grow this one for you from seed because is the only way to get a perfect rose.’

She might tell him ‒ if he had the time ‒ about the eighteen months it took to bring this rosebush to what it was now. Of the killing of the sick and weak ones. And how, in growing this gift for him, there was also cruelty: the destruction of the stunted and malformed, the burning and uprooting. She might make him know that she paid for her cruelty with her blood. Becuz this rosebush, from the time it broke the earth, wore a fortress of thorns which did not spare her hands.

But t’was worth the trouble, not so? T’was enough to know that its flowers will fill his office with their lovely scent, even as they died. And … mebbe … mebbe she will tell him this too ‒ that to make this present truly his, she’d decided to kill the tree.

The morning of the rally, she dressed in her white canvas shoes, the blue cotton dress and soft straw hat that she took out only for funerals and church. She visited the rosebush with her fork, a small milk tin of kerosene, her cutlass and a knife. Two small parcels ‒ one with a cutting she’d prepared the week before, the other with the flowers.

Slim was down there, urging the village into two humming government buses on the road.

The militiaman saw her coming and stopped his words. Slim looked her up and down, then at the thick brown paper bag in her hand. ‘Crazy Anni ‒ where you going?’

‘Town,’ she said and headed for the open door of the vehicle.

‘Town close down,’ he said. ‘Is to The Rally people going today.’

‘Me too,’ she said.

His eyes wandered again to her face, then down to her hand. ‘Is your lunch you got in that bag?’

‘You could say so,’ she said.

‘Pickup time is seven o’clock this evening. By the big green bridge. Make sure …’

She didn’t hear the rest; she’d already stepped into the smell of old leather, perfumed bodies and the abrupt silence of the packed bus. She ignored their eyes. The row of girls on the back seat brought their heads together. A burst of stifled chuckles shook their shoulders. Ole Miss Ann ….

Linda, who sold sweets and groundnuts by the roadside, roared at them and shut them up.

An hour later, she was looking down on the bright-red galvanised roofs of St George’s.

The big bus bucked and shuddered as it swung onto the Western Main. Then a slow crawl along the Esplanade through a river of bodies with fluttering banners ‒ all heading for the Park.

Slim dropped them off at the beginning of the curving road that ended in the Park.

‘Seven o’clock,’ he shouted, directing a rigid finger at the old iron bridge that spanned the dirty river where it met the sea. ‘And I not waiting for nobody.’

She stepped out into a sizzling sun, a dizzying swirl of flags and the heavy press of shoulders and torsos. The hum and thunder of voices throbbed the air around her. She stood at the edge of the curving road, the bag dangling from her hand. All those people. So much blastid people …

In her mind this journey had always been a straight line from her doorstep to the receiving hands of Missa Thorne. Chupid me!

She walked along the edge of the forward-creeping crowd, and when she could no longer get past them, eased herself into the press. Bodies carried her forward. From time to time, a meaty shoulder floundered her and she tightened her grip on the bag, holding it against her lower stomach, then between the shallow ravine of her thighs.

She lost track of time; was mindful only of the shuffle forward. At some point, a loudspeaker crackled and a voice washed over them. It shouted names, paused for a long moment, then called out Mister Thorne’s. And at the sound of his name a clamouring seemed to rise out of the earth on which she stood. Comrade Thorne, the loudspeaker said, would be the last to address them. That, she knew, was not going to be soon.

She lifted her eyes above the vast procession of heads, over the awning of the high stage ‒ shivering with red and white flags. The Grand Etang Hills were blue-brown in the distance, against a bleached out sky. Her mind drifted to her garden ‒ no rain for a month; no promise of it. The island was crisp as a biscuit, and these young people ‒ so full of sweat and sap ‒ did not give a damn.

It was evening and she was almost there. Further back she’d lost her left shoe. One moment there was a surge, next the grass was prickling her foot. Even if she’d seen it, it would’ve been impossible to retrieve it.

She could see them all now on the stage; she could match their voices to their faces. She’d already heard the short man with the head of piki-piki hair talk about better roads and drainage; the thin youngfella with the pointy beard explaining why the island needed newer, bigger guns. And that grinning yellow woman in the loose brown dress who told them what women of the island needed and weren’t getting. Her quick mistrust of that one startled her. Not like she who sat to the right of Missa Thorne with big bright eyes, hair cropped close to her skull like a boy’s. A young-girl face, but broad at the hips like a full-grown woman. That one talked of schools and books and learning ‒ all the while with a cigarette in her hand. She lit it when she returned to her chair beside Missa Thorne’s and blew a fan of smoke toward the crowd. That one never looked at Missa Thorne; sat cross-legged ‒ the big bright eyes sweeping the faces in the crowd exactly like the Birdmen in their heavy-looking waistcoats, and coiled wires sprouting from their ears.

And for the first time she was touched by doubt. The paper bag felt much heavier than its weight this morning. Chupid me ‒ to think that offering this to Missa Thorne, him taking it and thanking her was going to be worth all them early-morning trips down to Old Hope River, just to load a wicker basket full of loam and rotting leaves.

The movement of the crowd had taken her to the side of the platform. A young man with a wide stance and clean-shaven head was all that stood between her and the stage.

The man in the soldier’s cap was almost finished speaking and the hum of the crowd was shuddering the air. Yet she felt the quiet underneath that noise. A new electricity.

Now there he was, Missa Thorne, rising to his feet, lifted by the roar of the thousands that he’d called before him. For a moment, she was distracted by the face of the woman who sat and smoked beside him. She had turned up her head towards him, and was smiling for the first time.

Missa Thorne raised an arm and drew a sky-roar ‒ a thunder that went on and on, then got bounced back by the encircling hills.

And then silence, because he was nodding at a sway of braceleted hands on the grass below. A pair of arms untangled themselves from the others. A woman called his name, and then her body began to rise, lifted on the tide of bodies under her. She teetered on the lip of the platform, was held there by a forest of hands. Then she righted herself and was on the stage.

Heavily pregnant, the woman opened her arms to Missa Thorne. But five Birdmen had already gathered around her, their hands busy on her body. The tallest embraced her from behind, grinning and whispering in her ear as if she were the bearer of his child. He traced the roundness of her stomach with his palms; stopped only when decency would not allow his fingers to go further. Then he patted her shoulders, spread his fingers wide, and all the other Birdmen stepped away.

The woman delivered herself to Missa Thorne. He embraced her as if, all his life, he had been waiting for this woman so that he could press his beard into her hair and rock her with the slow care of a lover. And then he released her to the Birdmen who guided her off the stage.

And now Missa Thorne began speaking. He was saying the same things that those who came before him said, and yet they sounded different. He was gathering all their words and putting his life-breath into them. And like these children in this park, she felt the lift ‒ of being carried on a voice that needed no choir to support it and no big black book to give it weight.

All these words ‒ all this giving of himself had aged him. Even from that last time he’d come to Old Hope, the lines had deepened on his forehead, the dark brown beard now salted with white. Mebbe it was from remembering the bomb that killed the girls. Mebbe it was because he’d turned to killing in return. Mebbe.

Before, he did not stop in the middle of a speech to look behind him; he did not throw quick glances in the mid-distance like he was listening for something in the air beyond the hearing of this crowd …

She must have been lost for a while. She must have forgotten herself, because Missa Thorne was lifting his head in that final way of his, before the stroke of thunder that always came from him at the end of every speech: ‘Forward ever, backward never.’

She didn’t know what she said, or if she said anything, but the young man in front of her turned round blinking, as if she’d pulled him out of a dream. He dropped his eyes to the bag that she help open before him. He stepped aside and let her through.

She’d almost gone past the Birdmen when a hand closed on her elbow and the world around her dimmed. A body bounced her backward. She felt herself falling but hands closed around her armpits and kept her on her feet.

On the stage, Birdmen had made a circle around Missa Thorne, their backs to him. A big fist closed around the hand that held the bag. Fiery threads of pain ran up her arm and pooled around her shoulder, as the thorns of the rose sank into her.

They were hustling her backwards when a voice cut through. She recognised it as the woman’s ‒ the one who sat by Missa Thorne. A Birdman pushed out an arm in front of the woman. She raised her chin at him and held his gaze. He stepped aside and let her through.

She found herself walled in by heavy flesh with the woman in front of her. Those bright dark eyes were on her face. Close up, she looked much older.

Anni followed the woman’s downward gaze; saw the vine-trails of her own blood on the big paperbag. ‘Is the rose,’ she said. ‘The rose for Missa Thorne. He … he ask for it.’

The woman was gentle when she took the bag, opened it and peered inside. Her eyes were softer when she raised her head. She slipped in a hand and eased out the flowers. She raised herself on the balls of her feet and hoisted the bunch above the Birdmen’s head. The air lightened and lifted then spattered with applause.

‘Thank you, Comrade Sister,’ the woman said. She stripped away the leaves, dug a thumbnail into the base of each thorn and plucked it off. She curled steady fingers around the stem of each flower and broke it short.

‘Thank you,’ she said again.

The Birdmen followed her to the other side of the stage. The crowds were spilling out onto the road, their voices raised in song. The last of the sunlight haloed their shapes against the darkness of the old iron bridge.

The woman joined Missa Thorne, the five roses pressed against her breasts. He placed a hand in the small of her back while she held up the flowers to his face. He said something to her. She jerked a thumb over her shoulder.

Missa Thorne took the flowers and brought his face down to the bunch. At the open door of the long black car, he handed them back to her. The bright-eyed woman took the gift with cupped hands, her eyes turned up to his face. Then they lowered their heads and shoulders and disappeared into the vehicle.

The park had emptied quickly. Just the darkening expanse of grass now, pockmarked by discarded cans and paper flags. She looked down at the bag, torn in places, the imprint of a boot on it. She stooped and picked up the crushed cutting, its lower end still smeared with the mud that had covered the tiny wormlike roots.

She headed for the old green bridge, the sky beyond it gone gray now with the oncoming night. Ahead of her, gulls were squabbling above the shallow waters of the dirty bay. She sat on the low wall beside the bridge facing the sea. She was still staring at the shifting waters when a vehicle pulled up behind her. She heard her name, turned to see Slim stepping out of a small green van.

‘Crazy Anni, where the hell you been? I was looking for you.’

‘Bus gone?’ She said.

‘Long time,’ he said. ‘I tell y’all seven! Where you went! And where’s your other shoe?’

She let his irritation wash over her.

The young man peered into her face, leaned closer, then dropped an arm across her shoulders. ‘Okay, no sweat. Come, I take you home. You enjoy the rally?’

‘They take only de flower,’ she muttered, holding up the broken cutting. ‘They didn take the part that grow.’